Since 1993, Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has raised more than $68 million to fund historic preservation, wildlife management, environmental education and more in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). This partnership has flourished over the years, building up a list of accomplishments such as the reconstruction of the historic Mt. Cammerer Fire Tower, the reintroduction of elk to the Smokies after a 150-year absence, and a massive upgrade to the Park’s emergency radio system.
In 2014, Asheville GreenWorks, a local nonprofit that manages community-based environmental conservation projects, approached GSMNP about a unique partnership opportunity. Their goal was to develop a paid internship program for youth of color that would focus on experiences in Science, Technology, Math and Engineering (STEM) careers, particularly in the park service and conservation fields.
The Park recognized this proposal as a long-term need to strengthen diversity, equity and inclusion in conservation, and so they turned to Friends of the Smokies for support to make it a reality. “As the fiscal partner for the Park, we decided to fund it,” said Anna Zanetti, North Carolina Director for Friends of the Smokies. “I think it’s important for us to listen to what they need and feel is worth prioritizing.”
Now, Friends of the Smokies provides around $18,000 in funding each year for the Youth Environmental Leadership Program (YELP), facilitated by Asheville GreenWorks in partnership with Park staff as well as staff from other public lands in the Asheville area. “We’re really blessed with a plentitude of public lands in Asheville,” said Anna, and this unique collaboration opens the door for students to explore their interests in conservation efforts for those lands and beyond.
YELP interns complete a range of service work including habitat restoration,
water quality monitoring, trash cleanups and trail work.